Claudins are tetraspan transmembrane tight-junction proteins that regulate epithelial barriers. In the distal airspaces of the lung, alveolar epithelial tight junctions are crucial to regulate airspace fluid. Chronic alcohol abuse weakens alveolar tight junctions, priming the lung for acute respiratory distress syndrome, a frequently lethal condition caused by airspace flooding. Here we demonstrate that in response to alcohol, increased claudin-5 paradoxically accompanies an increase in paracellular leak and rearrangement of alveolar tight junctions. Claudin-5 is necessary and sufficient to diminish alveolar epithelial barrier function by impairing the ability of claudin-18 to interact with a scaffold protein, zonula occludens 1 (ZO-1), demonstrating that one claudin affects the ability of another claudin to interact with the tight-junction scaffold. Critically, a claudin-5 peptide mimetic reverses the deleterious effects of alcohol on alveolar barrier function. Thus, claudin controlled claudin-scaffold protein interactions are a novel target to regulate tight-junction permeability.